Geoffrey M. Rockwell
Department of Modern Languages
TSH 312, McMaster University
1280 Main St. W.
Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4M2
Does multimedia as a discipline of study fit within the academic model of a traditional humanities faculty? Or do multimedia programmes belong in computer science departments and technical colleges where technological skill is usually highlighted over critical inquiry? Recently, these questions were the topic of faculty-wide debate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where a small group of humanities-computing faculty brought forward a proposal for a new B.A. Combined Honours in Multimedia. The road to approval raised important issues about how the humanities envisions multimedia and how it can accommodate the new forms of creative endeavour made possible by the electronic combination of multiple media.
In this paper, we raise the question of how to build a place for multimedia in the humanities. We will begin by giving a history of our degree proposal and mapping out the process of approval, including the opposition we faced and the responses we developed in our evaluation and promotion of multimedia as an appropriate and justifiable course of study in the humanities. We will use our practical experience as a base upon which to theorize on matters of legitimacy, technical skill vs. critical skill, and the more general problem of placing multimedia in the humanities.
The major parts of this paper are:
If multimedia is to be a legitimate area of study in the humanities, however, we must envision it as a field of inquiry that includes both the production and critical analysis of multimedia artefacts. It follows that teaching multimedia in the humanities means teaching students more than how to use the tools. We also need to teach them how to be critical of multimedia, both in its particular instances and in its larger social context. In other words, to address what Willard McCarty calls the "urgent need for a critical understanding of the new medium," we need to combine the technical, the creative, and the analytical. Students whose strengths span these skills will graduate with a balanced knowledge and appreciation of multimedia and, therefore, will stand the best chance of success in their post-degree endeavors.
Our decision to adopt a Combined Honours format, where students must complete an Honours degree in Multimedia and another subject in the humanities or social sciences, reflects what we believe to be the interdisciplinary nature of multimedia. Since multimedia involves combining artefacts in various media--artefacts that are the basis of study in disciplines across the humanities--it makes sense to promote an interdisciplinary approach. So, we ask students to combine their study of multimedia with another subject area. One benefit of this approach is that we will not compete with other departments in our faculty. On the contrary, we hope to attract new students to McMaster who would otherwise attend post-secondary institutions elsewhere.
It comes as no real surprise to find that government and industry seem willing to envision a humanities that embraces technology and employability. After all, the humanities is facing increasing pressures to be more socially relevant and accountable. But how should we respond if these visions of a technologized humanities rest upon a uncritical belief in fuelling the economy by training producers and consumers of technological goods and services? While humanities-based multimedia programmes might indeed increase producers and consumers of technology, we need to make sure that our programmes in humanities computing retain critical and analytical dimensions that challenge economic forces primarily interested in the accumulation of capital regardless of the cost to social equity. At the same time, we need to recognize that multimedia students may find themselves in the fortunate position of being highly desirable on the job market. For this reason, when we build relationships with industry, we must be sure to maintain control over curriculum.
It is also unsurprising to find in the humanities a general distrust of technology's apparent complicity with technical skill and employability. Yet we might wonder about what kinds of difference the humanities sees between the technical skills used to create digital works and the technical skills used to create critical works of scholarship, not to mention works of art. If the differences can be found in a hierarchy of cultural value that privileges the intellectual over the physical, then how do we reconcile this with the physical techniques learned in drama, painting, sculpture, print making, etc.? The humanities recognizes that physical technique in the fine arts has an important intellectual component; however, once computer technology enters the scene, it is as if mechanization and automation remove human intellect. But as Malcolm McCullough reminds us, "technology has both intellectual and physical elements."
Building a legitimate place for multimedia in the humanities at McMaster University has meant developing and promoting a concept of multimedia that connects the physical and the intellectual and that emphasizes multimedia as a legitimate mode of representation deserving and requiring humanities scholarship. Indeed, if the humanities is to help give an equitable and ethical shape to the digital age, then it needs to engage with new communications technologies at the level of criticism and of practice.